Thu | Apr 25, 2019

Garnett Roper and Colin Campbell | The triumph of politics at the JUTC

Published:Sunday | March 3, 2019 | 8:39 PMRev Dr Garnett Roper and Colin Campbell - Contributors

Information contained in the 2019-20 Estimates of Expenditure and two recent articles in the daily newspapers are clearly indicating that the Jamaica Urban Transit Company Limited (JUTC) is on a direct collision course with bankruptcy and its eventual closure.

It has been reported that the managing director, Paul Abrahams, was screaming at commuters and asked for patience. Well, patience or not, it cannot be long now before the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the World Bank communicate to the ministries of finance and transport the unsustainability of the current financial and operational situation at the company.

This year, the company will see a record $9.1 billion in operating loss, $4 billion after government subvention of $5.1 billion. Bus roll-out will hit a seven-year low of 358, while the staff complement will climb to 2,178 from 2,074 in 2018-19.

Hence, when the multilateral agencies ask for the standard medicine to be applied, Ministers Mike Henry and Robert Montague, Chairman Russell Hadeed, and managing director Abrahams must take full responsibility for bringing the wrecking ball to JUTC, with their ill-conceived robot taxi policy and the replacement of professional managers, who have served the company from the start, with at least eight known Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) political activists, many of whom are of no particular merit.

TWO URGENT NEEDS

The creation of the JUTC in 1998 was in response to two urgent needs.

1. The first was to ameliorate a ramshackle ‘one-man, one bus’ lick-shot transportation system in the Kingston Metropolitan Transport Region (KMTR), where the minibus system neither protected the dignity nor assured the safety of commuters, especially the most vulnerable – our children, the aged, and the disabled.

Many parents now would recall their own experience as students when many bus operators yelled at them, “No schoolers!”

We must never forget that fateful back-to-school morning in 1994 when children were being pushed from overcrowded minibuses and a little boy from Peter’s Rock, his first morning out, ended up under the back wheel of a mini bus in Barbican Square. Sadly, he was crushed to death.

The JUTC was born that morning because former Shell general manager Howard Hamilton, witnessing the tragedy, detoured himself directly to Jamaica House to beg for an audience with the prime minister and reportedly told him, “no more, no longer”.

2. The second objective was in pursuit of modernising the KMTR with a modern mass-transit system. All over the world, there are examples of well-managed and operated subsidised public-transportation systems. In many of these systems, they not only ensure the safety, reliability, and efficiency of the operations, but also guarantee an increased level of national productivity, which provided commuter buy-in and a space for social solidarity.

Objectively, the performance of the JUTC has been uneven, some would say generally unsatisfactory. However, it is now universally agreed that the years 2012-2016 represented the best effort of the company to achieve its original objectives of providing a safe, reliable, modern, professional, efficient, and cost-effective transportation service.

By the end of 2011, the JLP Government had run down an impressive fleet of more than 700 buses to just over 200. To be fair, the then minister of finance, Audley Shaw, realising the predicament in the dying days of the political administration, signed a loan with Commerz Bank of Belgium for €100m to buy 200 new buses, parts, and other specialised equipment.

With this new rolling stock, three operating depots, a central maintenance facility, and the transportation centre in Half-Way Tree, the new Government made an enormous last gasp at turning things around with this capital expenditure.

In the 2012-16 period, the operating fleet climbed back to over 550 buses, with the new units and the repairing of another 130. It was a complex and enormous operation by the time the administration of the People’s National Party (PNP) was succeeded by the JLP at the start of 2016.

The daily roll-out of buses was over 452 buses, making 20 cycle trips each or 9,000 trips per day. Over 250,000 commuters, including 100,000 children and students, were moved daily, and the company generated gross fare revenue of J$5.2 billion in 2015-16, coming from less than $3 billion in 2012.

Fare revenues have now fallen by over $1 billion in the period 2016 to 2019. What else should one expect when illegal taxis grow daily and Minister Montague promises licences galore to anyone who wants one?

THREE MAIN FACTORS

The two stories in the newspapers about the deterioration of the JUTC appeared without much notice and failed also to generate additional comments. One of the stories referenced the J$9 billion loss that the JUTC is projecting and the other story centred on an appeal from the management of the JUTC for patience and understanding from the commuting public. This story underscored the difficulties the company was facing, and it acknowledged that commuters have to travel with their own umbrellas to cope with the leaking air-conditioning units inside the buses.

From the information available, one could surmise that there are three factors that have contributed to the state of near bankruptcy and peril in the bus company.

1. The first is the partisan political culture in which competent professionals have been replaced by political henchmen and women.

The JLP has been very savage in its employment policies throughout the public sector but nowhere worse than the JUTC. There are cases of wrongful dismissal still pending at the Industrial Disputes Tribunal (IDT) because of the dreadful industrial relations practices of the current management. Many of the self-inflicted wounds have been due to this human resources practice of victimisation on the one hand and nepotism and cronyism on the other hand.

2. The second is a chaotic, free-for-all transportation policy and licensing regime with pie-in-the-sky claims of improving the system in the KMTR. Instead, it has set chaos upon the transportation landscape in such a manner that the roads are overrun by robot route taxis and coaster buses, which drive in a most menacing manner. Utter chaos reigns in the city, and often, driving in the city is taking one’s life in one’s own hands.

It is a death trap.

In that environment, the bus company has seen its revenue plummet and the city, which is a mass transit-dependent one, has been plunged into utter chaos.

3. The third challenge that is serving to signal the death knell of the bus company is the gridlock caused by the so-called ‘legacy projects’ – to fix every road in the city at once. The road repairs and construction have been uncoordinated; with absolutely no thought given to mass transit.

The bus company just cannot make the cycle trips required to move the commuting public, there are long delays, and traffic pile-ups. The load factors have, therefore, been affected, and this has impacted fuel-consumption patterns, making it too expensive on the fuel budget of the company.

History shows that the JLP Government closed the Jamaica Omnibus Service Company (JOS) and left the system in chaos, and now, it seems that another JLP administration is getting ready to close the JUTC.

If this materialises, it would be foreclosing on the dignity and safety of the vulnerable members of our population, especially the children, the elderly, and the disabled. It is also foreclosing on our hope for a modern and well-operated city with an efficient public transportation system.

- The Rev Dr Garnett Roper is the former chairman of the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC); and Colin Campbell is the former managing director of the JUTC. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.